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More than half of Wisconsin ethanol plants face violations

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Stacy Vogel
October 12, 2008
— Danell Behrens knows just how neighbors of a Milton ethanol plant feel.

Ever since Renew Energy started operations in Behren’s rural Jefferson neighborhood, she and her neighbors have contended with horrible odors and emissions that sometimes make them sick, she said.


“People are getting to the point where you complain and complain, and nothing’s being done,” she said.


Behrens’ concerns echo those of a group of residents living next to United Ethanol, 1250 Chicago St., Milton. Neighbors there have complained of noise, smell and emissions causing headaches and sore throats.


The Milton and Jefferson ethanol plants aren’t the only ones facing complaints, both from neighbors and the Department of Natural Resources. Of nine ethanol plants in operation in Wisconsin, six have been or are currently involved in enforcement actions with the DNR. A seventh plant that was involved in enforcement actions is no longer in operation.


A DNR official called the high rate of enforcement actions in the ethanol industry “unusual,” and an environmental group said it’s concerned the state isn’t holding ethanol plants to strict enough standards.


Unusual rate

“In general, having more than half the industries in the sector having enforcement actions against them, that’s unusual,” said Bill Baumann, air management compliance and enforcement chief. “But again, we’re talking about a relatively small amount of plants here…


“The other industries in the state, I wouldn’t expect to see that high of a percentage.”


The violations of the seven plants run the gamut, from minor problems such as creating too much dust to major violations such as constructing without permits and not controlling emissions. In two cases, the problems were solved after the DNR sent letters to the plants. The state sued two of the plants—one of them twice—and was awarded fines ranging from $75,000 to $300,000.


Enforcement actions against the Milton and Jefferson plants are ongoing, and the DNR has referred the case of Didion Ethanol in Cambria to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for potential court action.


Baumann said the youth of the industry might contribute to the high rate of enforcement actions. Corn-based ethanol has existed for decades, but the industry has exploded in the last eight years.


The industry might be working the bugs out, Baumann said. For example, some early plants were built without the necessary pollution-control equipment because owners might not have realized how much pollution the plants would emit, one DNR official said.


Who’s to blame?

Joshua Morby, executive director of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance, also blamed the exploding growth rate for some of the enforcement issues. But he said it’s slow-moving regulators, not the ethanol industry, who are causing the issues.


“This industry has grown at a pace that’s so fast that regulators have just simply been, and currently are, unable to keep up with the pace of development,” he said.


For example, the DNR might give an ethanol plant permission to develop X gallons of ethanol a year, he said. If the plant later finds a more efficient way to make more ethanol with the same amount of input, it’s punished for making more ethanol than its permit allows.


“From an industry standpoint, look, we’re constantly changing,” he said. “From a regulatory standpoint, things are very black-and-white.”


The Ace Ethanol plant in Stanley illustrates the tug-of-war between the ethanol industry and the DNR. The state sued the plant in 2003, claiming it expanded production without a permit and failed to install pollution control equipment.


According to a news release from the Department of Justice, the plant told the DNR it would not release more than 100 tons of emissions a year, so the DNR granted it a “minor source” permit that didn’t require it to install pollution-control equipment.


In fact, the plant released more than 100 tons a year, making it a major emissions source, the release said.


The plant agreed in 2004 to pay $300,000 in fines and construct the required equipment.


Lax permits?

It’s those kinds of cases that worry Karen Schapiro, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. She believes some plants get permits after cursory reviews, then violate those permits once they start operations.


“I think relative to many other industries, there’s a disproportionate percentage of them that are operating out of compliance with their permits,” she said. “Part of it is they could be going through shake-down processes—many of them are new—but nevertheless it doesn’t exempt them from complying with the Clean Air and Clean Water act(s).”


The advocacy group opposes corn-based ethanol because it believes ethanol increases greenhouse gas emissions and raises food prices.


The group has an ongoing permit challenge against Didion Ethanol, a plant in Cambria, because it believes the wastewater provisions in the plant’s permit aren’t adequate, Schapiro said. (Didion also is facing a potential lawsuit from the state for alleged violations.)


The group is following other Wisconsin cases where it believes plants are violating permits or don’t have strict enough permits, Schapiro said.


“It’s problematic on the compliance front,” she said.


‘A good thing’

But Morby said it’s unfair to characterize the ethanol industry as noncompliant.


“We as an industry fundamentally support and are working toward cleaner air and cleaner water and reduced emissions,” he said. “That’s what ethanol is.”


The enforcement controversies are a side issue to the good ethanol production does for Wisconsin, he said.


“At our core, this industry, the biofuel industry, is one that’s creating a renewable source of energy that’s cheaper than gas, and is made here in Wisconsin,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”


Regenerative thermal oxidizer now a well-known term in Milton

Two years ago, regenerative thermal oxidizer was an unknown term in Milton.


Today, the term comes up routinely at council meetings and almost any discussion of the United Ethanol plant.


Plant officials have described the new RTO it is installing as key to meeting some permit requirements and reducing odors, noise and emissions.


The RTO comes into play near the end of the ethanol-making process. After the ethanol is extracted from the corn, the leftover mash contains wet distillers grain. This grain is sent to the ring dryer to be turned into dry distillers grain and is eventually sold, often to farmers as livestock feed.


The RTO essentially burns up emissions—particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds—coming from the ring dryer by adding oxygen to the emissions at high temperatures.


Thermal oxidizers have played an important role in ethanol pollution control. In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started investigating a "suspected pattern of noncompliance" of the Clean Air Act in the ethanol industry. As a results, dozens of ethanol plants across the country agreed to install thermal oxidizers, among other requirements, to reduce pollution.


United Ethanol's original RTO was inadequate, plant officials said.


The plant has blamed its contractors for the inadequate RTO and other problems. The company hired Natural Resources Group to prepare its air construction permit application and AGRA Industries to construct the plant.


"Both NRG and AGRA failed to fulfill their obligations to United Ethanol, and United Ethanol has been remedying these issues ever since," General Manager Mike Opdahl wrote in a letter to the DNR.


Natural Resources Group and AGRA both declined comment, citing client confidentiality agreements.


Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials have said they believe a new RTO will help bring United Ethanol into compliance. But Eileen Pierce, DNR regional air and waste leader, said the RTO won't necessarily solve all of United Ethanol's problems.


"The full scope of the alleged violations certainly goes beyond the RTO," she said.


Renew Energy facing enforcement action from DNR

When Renew Energy planned an ethanol plant in rural Jefferson, officials told neighbors the plant would smell like baking cornbread, resident Janet Bartz said.


"If I ever had cornbread that smelled like that, I wouldn't allow people to eat it," she said.


Bartz and Danelle Behrens, another neighbor, said plant neighbors have had to endure sickening odors and irritating noise since the plant started operations early this year.


At their worst, the smells cause headaches, burning eyes and breathing problems, Bartz said. Behrens said the odors have given her asthma attacks.


"The entire thing has just been a fiasco right from the start," Bartz said.


The plant did have odor problems in its first few months of operation, said Todd Foerster, manager of operation services. It resolved those and went through most of the summer without problems, he said.


Then in mid-September the plant had an accidental discharge to its lagoons, causing another odor problem, Foerster said. The plant has resolved the problem and the odor is gone, he said.


Renew Energy is facing an enforcement action from the DNR for alleged violations, including releasing malodorous emissions and violating wastewater discharge requirements.


The plant did have a "horrendous" odor problem in its first few months, but it has been aggressive about addressing odor issues and improving record-keeping, said Dave Carper, DNR air management engineer.


Foerster said the plant's early problems were start-up issues, and the plant is in good shape now.


"We feel pretty good about the construction and our plant's abilities," he said.


But neighbors aren't so confident, Bartz said.


"Every time (a problem) happens, we hear, ‘Oops, sorry, we had a spill,' but nothing seems to be done," she said. "It's very, very frustrating."



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